I am extremely happy to say that the McMullen Gallery at the University of Alberta Hospital will be hosting my exhibition 21st Century Nesting Practices!
This iteration of the work will feature a new video piece, and a soundscape created from a combination of my own field recordings and a selection of recordings from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology holdings.
The Exhibition Opening Reception is January 10, 2018 from 7pm – 9pm.
If you are in the Edmonton area, please stop in! The exhibition is up until February 25, 2018.
My thanks to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology for their support in realizing the soundscape for this exhibition, and to the McMullen for hosting me.
Many preparations afoot for the upcoming opening of Elsewhere on January 9 2015.
What it all amounts to is what happens ‘the rest of the time’ in the work of working on my practice.
And for the last several days, that has looked like:
400 square feet of ethafoam
two large rolls of bubble wrap
half a roll of cling wrapping
three and a half rolls of packing tape
20 feet of 12″ diameter concrete forms
48 square feet of foamcore
a large roll of heavy weight plastic sheet
cardboard … lots of corrugated cardboard
several large tubs
**Extra-special thanks to amazing artist Sara McKarney for her mad preparator-skills and help with some of the packing!
… and once all of that was done, it looked like this:
AND special thanks to John Waldron for the assistance with packing the truck and getting all of this, and me, to the gallery to unload!
So. That bit is done: work is packed and delivered to the gallery, and installation of the exhibition will begin January 5th. (ah, the glamourous life!)
In a bit of serendipity, this evening I came across a pertinent bit of writing concerning the whole subject of the artist’s life and practice. It’s a speech by artist Teresita Fernandez, and it hits so many salient points. Read excerpts (and hear it too) at the lovely Brain Pickings, here.
But first – before I get back to considering all of the relative successes and potential failures in this and other work to come, I can actually take a little bit of time and catch my breath, and reacquaint myself with the world outside my studio walls (like my kitchen … oh, ya … and the laundry).
The specific spark for the body of work I am developing over the course of my Residency at Harcourt House dates back well over a year now, to two conversations I had in quick succession, with two of my favourite poets: Catherine Owen and Jannie Edwards. Turns out, both of them had been re-reading Gaston Bachelard’s amazing work The Poetics of Space … and I had been reading some of Roger-Pol Droit‘s delightful explorations of phenomenology in his books How are Things? and 101 Experiments in the Philosophy of Everyday Life. I had let Bachelard’s book slip from my awareness a bit, and so after great talks with Cath and Jannie, I dug into The Poetics of Space once more, after a many-years absence. The reward was great and immediate – as it had been the first time I read his words.
Bachelard has this to say about nests:
A nest, like any other image of rest and quiet, is immediately associated with the image of a simple house.
A nest-house is never young … . For not only do we come back to it, but we dream of coming back to it, the way a bird comes back to its nest, or a lamb to the fold. This sign of return marks an infinite number of daydreams, for the reason that human returning takes place in the great rhythm of human life, a rhythm that reaches back across the years, and through the dream, combats all absence.
(Boston: Beacon Press, 1994,pp.98-99)
So here we are at the intersection of the object, memory, emotion, and space: the confluence of the human beings’ relationship to things. But there’s more to this than meets the eye, if for no other reason than this is a human response to a non-human structure. A certain amount of species-centric thinking here, to be sure, but this is a discussion of human responses and ideas, after all.
And there’s no small set of contradictions in the human response to the bird nest – the ambivalence and ambiguity of which hooked me immediately – and simply required that I do something with it. Because, as Bachelard points out quite clearly, a “nest – and this we understand right away – is a precarious thing, and yet it sets us to daydreaming of security. Why does this obvious precariousness not arrest daydreams of this kind? (pp. 102-103)
There’s so much in the nest-as-object that screams insecurity, loss (potential or real), absence, ephemerality. And yet … and yet. They are also objects emblematic of ingenuity (be it hard-wired genetically or not), of a certain stick-with-it-ness in the face of any number of possible negative outcomes. Perhaps it is these things to which we respond so strongly. The idea of endurance, and the security that it brings … the longevity of memory that allows room for a return or two; the capacity to “use the available materials” (my thanks here to poet Louise Gluck) to craft a place that says “safe” that says “haven” … against all odds.
Poet Louise Gluck sums up the the complex simplicity of birds’ nest building activities so well. In her poem ‘Nests”, she writes:
It took what there was:
the available material.
I am discovering just how much that particular approach informs my practice overall – and for this body of work, particularly so. Part of what I want to do with NEST is to apply the methods of birds’ natural nest-building habits to the work that I create – both literally and metaphorically. On a literal level, I have always works with recycled and reclaimed materials – the detritus of city living and the remaindered artifacts of the manufactured world. This is an essential aspect of what I do: to make work that treads lightly, but also speaks to those complexities of living in this world and out relationship to the materials we make and use to do that living. The parallels to the wiliness of birds as architects and engineers is obvious, and not a little fun:
Bowerbird Nests … the male creates installations of objects to attract the female, which may include bright blue bottle caps!
I received a fabulous book this past Yule season, that is contributing enormously to my research for the NEST project, and to my understanding of some of the engineering and architectural challenges I am facing in constructing work.
Have a peek at Avian Architecture, by Peter Goodfellow – it’s a goldmine of terrific research on – and images of – various forms of bird’s nests, and has grab listing of resources for further research as well. (click on the “google preview” button on the page I’ve linked here to have a peek inside!)
In human terms, crafting a ‘nest’ is both process and product. Effort and thought goes into the selection of physical objects and materials that we use to build our homes, the ‘nesting’ we do over time to create comfortable spaces for ourselves. But these material artifacts are also invested with meaning of an altogether different sort: the weight of memory, of connection and attachment that is assigned to some (if not all) of the things we choose.
There is an architecture of the spirit here, a using of the ‘available materials’ to create meaning far beyond the things themselves.
A small nest made of copper mesh, beeswax, human hair, and a crow feather I created in 2011.
Birds nests then, be come markers of sorts – signifiers and pointers directing our thoughts and responses back to the spiritual/emotional ‘nests’ we create as individuals … or to those that we wish we had, or have lost in one way or another. Perhaps it is simply the precariousness and fragility of those exposed havens – made of everything imaginable, in seemingly random collections – that make that connection between the animal-made object and human desire so enduring.
It’s been a while since I’ve had time to write – but for all the right reasons. Have been busy in the studio, preparing for a group show at the Art Gallery of St. Albert on December 1, entitles “Lost and Found.” Have also been working on (and through) a series of photos of the York Hotel interior; have begin the process of developing this project into a photoessay/installation for exhibition, with my co-adventurer, Marian Switzer. Also getting ready for the start of my Residency at Harcourt House – which officially begins November 1; research, photos, more reading, writing poems … it’s all begun, and I am so excited about this coming year and all the potential for discovery and creation that it will bring. Taking a fantastic drawing class at U of A Extension with Jessie Forchuk – learning so much about seeing, and about what it means to exercise those dusty synapses and connections between eye and hand … learning about what it means to make a mark that is really my own. Was part of a very interesting meeting/discussion session this past week, hosted by the City of Edmonton and the Office of the Mayor, addressing a series of recommendations for an Arts Vision for Edmonton. Some great conversations, solid ideas, and a general feeling that things need to shift – NOW – so, I’m looking forward to seeing how many of these ideas become the risks we need to take in concrete terms to make this city what it could be in the arts.> So … it’s been busy!
But now, finally, I have time to turn my attention back to writing and thinking a little more clearly about some other projects – in particular – EGG and Make:Believe. Herewith, the latest installment – and it’s a BIG ONE, so apologies for the extensive post … it’s been wanting voice for quite some time now, so bear with me if you will.
I begin with a quote from Andy Goldsworthy, one of my all-time favorite artists, in which he encapsulates so many of the things I am exploring in these two projects, and in my work overall:
Movement, change, light growth and decay are the lifeblood of nature, the energies that I try to tap through my work. I need the shock of touch, the resistance of place, materials and weather, the earth as my source. I want to get under the surface. When I work with a leaf, rock, stick, it is not just that material itself, it is an opening into the processes of life within and around it. When I leave it, these processes continue.[…] Each work grows, strays, decays—integral parts of a cycle which the photograph shows at its height, marking the moment when the work is most alive. There is an intensity about a work at its peak that I hope is expresses in the image. Process and decay are implicit.” ~ Andy Goldsworthy, Time
The Turning Wheel I had the pleasure of spending another weekend at Jannie and Mark’s at the beginning of the month. This was another working weekend, that marked the third season in which I was able to see the structures as they have developed and changed, and the last real opportunity for me to develop Make:Believe further before the snow flies here. Not a minute to spare, and excitement at the prospect. I found my self wanting – longing – to be out with the land, the structures, the people again. To see the changes, the transformations wrought by time and weather and the evolving season. To be actively making with the land and what grows there again. I hadn’t fully realized until then just how much the place and the project has got inside me – and inside my thinking. This is an exciting and arresting realization: another instance of the vital importance of place, of space and land and landscape, to my practice and to my understanding of the world and my place it.
Prelude, and Finale: EGG gets its Nest
The Egg, resting on its pontoons … before we built the bed to house it permanently.
The weekend’s work began on Friday afternoon, with the Egg. Jannie and I had determined back in July that the remnants of the sculpture should have a permanent home somewhere on the farm. It made sense that from a structure that embodied intentions for a new phase of life, green living things should grow, and it should be ‘planted’ in a garden bed of some sort. This was, of course, also fitting in the overall eternal return of the materials to their source – all of the willow used for the construction of the Egg was cut from living trees on site, and the Egg was built and burned on the farm as well. In the end, we chose a spot of high ground overlooking the dugout for the Egg’s home. The location made sense to both of us in terms of sight lines on the property, and it also served to anchor the sculpture itself, by placing it in close proximity to the trees that went into building it and the water on which it carried intentions into the fire of its transformative burning.
Making the bed turned out to be far easier than either of us anticipated. In this case, a little ingenious and creative use of a minor annoyance also came into play – always a good thing, to my mind. We had both been thinking of having to dig a garden bed, and then hand weed the result to make it suitable for planting … a long, tough job, to make the bed a suitable size to house EGG. What we opted for was far simpler – and an ultimate act of recycling: we put down a thick layer of newspaper to kill the weeds and provide mulch, and over top of this, shovelled the excellent black earth left behind in piles around the property by the energetic machinations of voles! All in all, a time and effort saving solution, that also went some distance to eliminating at least some of the mounds of dirt left by the perverse little rodents, temporarily at least. Over the lovely rich black soil, we spread a bit of straw, and then covered the whole bed with landscape fabric … .
The next challenge was getting EGG up off the pontoons in one piece, and properly placed on its new home. The sculpture had burned quite well in July, but thankfully for our present purposes, there was enough of the underside of the egg itself and the supporting base raft that remained intact. We were able to move it from the pontoons in one piece, simply by moving in concert, one of us on each end of the sculpture. The last step was a bit of reinforcement, just to make sure the weight of the coming winter’s snow didn’t flatten what remained of the original egg shape completely. A few judiciously placed willow withes woven into the original structure for greater strength – again, from the trees that sent into its original making – and a couple of uprights sunk into the earth to support the now-bowl shape from below, and it was done for the time being. Come spring, the bed will be planted with some sort of climbing and creeping vine … We are hoping to find a suitable native plant (or combination of plants) for this purpose, in keeping with the approach we have both taken to this project, and the larger ongoing work in Make: Believe.
All Things in Their Season: the last work before winter
After the successful closure for EGG, and a splendid meal and talk by the fire on Friday night, I was eager to get to work on the next stage of construction for Make: Believe. There was both anticipation, and something of a sense of urgency to it … the year has flown by, and I really wanted to get as much done on establishing the network of structures in the caragana before the snow flies (all too soon). Jannie and I had discussed the addition of both more spaces and tunnels in the grove … In essence, a network of loosely interconnected sculptural spaces of various sizes, that could be used by people and animals for any number of purposes.
Happily, the first structure I had begun in the Spring had been ‘christened’ – that is, it had been used as a social space, a space for conversation and companionship – by Merryn and a friend. This was a delightful discovery for me. I had always envisioned the sculpture a something that would be actively used and engaged, so to have people take advantage of its existence so early in the creation of the overweening work was something of an affirmation that I was on the right track, and that the work was evolving and would evolve as it should within this specific context of space, land, and people.
This brought my thinking back to several interconnected themes that I have been dealing with in my work in various ways for the last several years: the complicated position the individual inhabits in relation to public and private spaces, the fluidity and variability of the narratives presented and created within those spaces by individuals (an act of co-creation if ever there was one), and the ways in which both people and spaces are ‘written upon’ by larger cultural narratives in those contexts.
Public and Private, Inside and Out There is history here – what the Din’s brought to the place, what the subsequent owner did and didn’t do … What Jannie and Mark continue to build and create here, what the larger tribe of friends and family contribute, literally and metaphorically. And now, these new things we care for and create, to add to the layers of presences and connections. The history of work. The history of hands making, of the continual action of becoming. Jannie has pointed to the ‘dialectic of physical work and faith’ in this project’s name, but this dialectic is also evident in the methodology, the materials and constraints we have developed … all these things are a direct reflection of our approach to the whole endeavour. It strikes me that this dialectic was pre-existent … as much a part of the place and what we we have found there to work with as any other element. We have simply picked it up, again – as one picks up a tool essential for the creation of what’s in the mind’s eye; it is our turn. This is the history of human presence, of farming here, of homesteading. Aspects of my own family history, as much as Jannie’s, recapitulated through the farm itself. I found myself going through old photos of my father’s family, when they were homesteading near Highvale. How many of the buildings there could have been easily transplanted to this farm, be of similar vintage, and of similar endurance. But it is so much more, because here also is the fertile ground of imagination in full play, coming to bear upon what remains of the past, and what is being made in the present, what the future will bring. All of this is active, absolutely active engagement … a palimpsest that allows us each to view these stories from multiple vantage points. Nothing linear about it: this is the eternal return of the spiral, perhaps the truest shape for memory and narrative and history.
Physically situated on the edge of the property, the caragana windrow serves as something of a privacy hedge between house and road, and also a shelter belt against wind and weather for the yard around the farmhouse. It is, then, not unlike a fence – or even a berm (another polyvalent liminal space I have explored, and continue to explore) – in its function on a basic level: on one side, the range road connecting farms and town and people to one another across the landscape, and on the other, the house, outbuildings, yard, and woods of the acreage. It is understood, this division … Leastwise, by people coming by on the road; the animals hold to no such convention and limitation, except instinctively. Here too – again like a berm – the caragana grove also provides a transportation corridor. Principally for animals, true – but people small and large have walked through this stand of trees, and continue to do so … A way to get from here to there pleasantly and ‘under cover’ – an environment that lends itself to privacy and more intimate explorations of these living pathways. So this grove is both border and corridor, conduit and haven for humans and animals, both public and private.
The addition of structures within this preexisting borderland further complicates and enhances the ways in which the stand of trees functions and can be ‘read’ as space. In respect of these structures, the grove encloses both public and private spaces with itself: there are now a total of three woven ‘rooms’, connected by roofed corridors/walkways threaded through a good portion of the stand. Further, by defining the pathways by weaving roofs for them has increased their solidity – their capacity to contain and enclose space and living beings moving through them – and this shift has, in its turn, provoked a more consistent reading of the corridors as being spaces for movement, for travel rather than repose. Concomitantly, the ‘rooms’ connected to these covered corridors have gained additional weight as destinations – places to come to via the covered paths, places to stop, places to rest. Having said this, however, I am also aware of how simplistic such a statement really is in the face of the reality of these spaces … .
The structures (and the spaces they contain and embody through the fact of their physical shape and location) are profoundly fluid in meaning – liminal in several ways simultaneously. Each sculpture has several points of ingress/egress, so in one sense, they are simply more formalized open spaces within the larger network of enclosed paths. Nonetheless, I am utterly conscious of the way in which these spaces have already been invested with other meanings and functions, specific to both their structure and physical locale. The oldest of the three is located deep in the grove, and is well-surrounded by caragana and other tree on all sides, and so is the most enclosed and ‘internal’ of the three structures created thus far. It has been used for imaginative play by a three year old, as a quiet space for conversation by adults, perhaps in some way by birds or other animals through three seasons. It has a solidity, a rootedness, that lends itself to being read as a room, and a private one at that. The two new structures are less solid physically (for now), stemming from the fact that they are both situated in different spots on the periphery of the grove, and therefore simply lack the number and density of trees on all sides that the first structure has.
The first of the newly-built spaces is located roughly at the midpoint on the length of the caragana stand, but on the outer edge, closest to the road. The caragana grows more sparsely here, so that there is substantial open space between each of them, and in turn between the last of the large caragana trees and a second windbreak of various other deciduous trees that runs right along the ditch bordering the road. As a consequence, this second structure has a total of four openings that can be used for ingress/egress, and reads at this stage in its development as a pergola of sorts – a space that one might stop in briefly on the way elsewhere.
The third structure (the second of the new) is more tenuous still – liminal in its very being – in that it is currently a half-dome, arching away from the grove like an awning. Further, what thin walls it does have on the grove-side also house two ingress/ egress points, so even these walls are themselves broken up by open spaces. Still, this structure does have a certain sense of enclosure to it; like and awning or a porch, it could be used as refuge, to shelter from rain, sun, or snow. But like a porch or awning, the extent to which this structure (in its present form) could be read as a destination or a private is minimal – not only by virtue of it lacking walls on two-thirds of its circumference, but also because this open expanse faces onto a large open clearing with a wide path extending from it to the yard surrounding the house and the rest of the farm it is like a rest-stop on the highway, rather than the longed-for destination – at least at this point. It is not a room or a bower or nest, but it does still evoke the notion of refuge amid movement and change.
Place, Home, and Heart There is longing here – for the overturned bowl of immense sky, for the overturned bowl of the first structure, for the intimacy of smelling the earth and tree loam and bark and leaves in the caragana. Longing to be matching the persistence and strength of the caragana itself … the active work of being, problem solving, growing, adapting, creating that echoes back and forth, between the trees and me. This of course is precisely what Bachelard is describing – the primordial nest/house, the place it occupies in memory and in our emotional landscape. The fundamental rootedness of that response, deep in the psyche … that longing for return, in the face of recognizing that this is a space not so much inhabited physically as contained within oneself, that simply seeks its reflection in the world of place and space – to be made real, tangible. I recognize in this too, that these structures operate not only as vessels to house longing and memory, but to contain it safely. In the making is the making of safety, of comfort, of rest … the spaces evolve and become what they need to be at the time of their making, and then, chameleon-like, become what someone else needs them to be. Such is the nature of the nest, the house, the notion of home embodied – regardless of the details.
Always Presence, and Absence These observations bring me to considering the role of ephemerality and transformation in this work as a whole. Not only in the concrete sense – in that the structures will evolve both in form and in meaning as they develop and change through natural processes. This is certainly a central focus of the work: the active cyclicity inherent in working with living, growing materials, and that by choosing to use these materials, I must engage fully in their inherent and inevitable transformation through the seasons and cycles of growth and death. To try to resist this quality would be utterly futile – and it would deny the strength of these transformations to shape and enliven the work over time.
This work is ultimately about release: a moving out of and beyond self as much as one is able, to pay real attention to the other presences that bring their energy to bear in the act of continual creation. This is about permeability: seeking that illusive mental space in which that attention allows us to lose sight of where our physical limits are – where we stop and the land starts, how far we can push the body in order to realize the forms that reside in imagination. And the reverse of course is true – perhaps in an even more profound way. The land – this land – doesn’t end at boot heels, can’t be washed off with hot water and soap … it’s inside us as surely as our lungs take in the chill air and the dust kicked up on the road. It’s in the way we see space, how we understand and make sense of light and the space between us. In the end, the land will remain when we are no longer here; the structures will remain as long as they are supposed to, grow and sleep as they must in their cycles, regardless of our proximity or physical interaction with them. But even in these absences, something of what all of this is and means to each of us, all of that simple complexity, will remain … to be found in the deep silence of winter, and the stirrings of next spring after it.
I also have to consider my perceptions and responses to the structures and their development and the changes they manifest through this cyclicity. To work in this way requires an openness and a release that is both liberating and utterly humbling, often in quick succession. However much I may want any given structure to resolve itself in a particular way, I can only do so much to that end – the materials will offer their own resolution to any given problem or idea I have by letting me know what can and can’t be done without heavy-handed intervention. These are simple lessons, but they accumulate broader meaning as the work continues. Branches only bend so far. Newer growth offers much more flexibility, but less strength for supporting weight. It is not wise to underestimate how much resistance will be encountered when trying to make a thought or idea into a concrete shape. Each time a place or object is encountered, it will reveal new information; it is worth paying attention to those messages, even if they don’t seem important at the time. Nothing is ever really, completely finished.